Holden Matthews
Holden Matthews

A man arrested in connection with recent Louisiana Black church fires has been confirmed as the son of a law enforcement official, reports say.

And while the nation’s president and vice-president went to social media to lament the ravaging of the historic cathedral, Notre Dame, in Paris, neither have commented on several assaults against Black houses of worship in America.

Holden Matthews, 21, has been arrested in connection with fires at three predominantly Black churches in Louisiana while all three churches have been cited under the alleged arsonist’s social media account that confirm his tertiary connections with white supremacy groups.

St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre burned down on March 26, followed by Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 2 and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on April 4. Authorities remain confident that the perpetrator intentionally set all three fires.

Meanwhile, members of the Congressional Black Caucus [CBC] have asked for the FBI to investigate the arsons as hates crimes.

“CBC Chair Karen Bass, Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson and Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana’s Second Congressional District call on the Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI] and all federal law enforcement agencies to investigate the possible hate crime that resulted in the recent burning of the three historically-Black churches in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana,” according to a CBC statement.

“All three fires may be the product of domestic terrorism and places of worship should be protected and safe at all times. It is our expectation that the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies work expeditiously to resolve this matter to restore faith and normalcy among the residents of St. Landry Parish,” the statement continues.

On April 9, NAACP President Derrick Johnson commented on the church fires.

“What is happening in Tennessee and Louisiana is domestic terrorism and we must not turn a blind eye to any incident where people are targeted because of the color of their skin and their faith,” he said. “The spike in church burnings in the Southern states is a reflection of emboldened racial rhetoric and tension spreading across the country.”

Matthews, taken into custody on the evening of April 10 according to Louisiana TV station KATC, has been reported to be the son of a St. Landry Parish sheriff’s deputy.

History Points to Legacy of Hatred

During the 1990s, a wave of 145 church burnings moved then-President Bill Clinton to share words of consolation to church members outside Salem Baptist Church in rural Tennessee in 1996. Clinton visited the rededication of the church after its destruction by arsonists in 1995.

However, images shared by the media evoked memories of another house of worship, Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina – one of scores of others which bore the unfortunate and unique distinction of having been previously been torched by members of the Ku Klux Klan during the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement

The church stood as one of 145 Black churches burned from 1995 to 1996 in a wave of arson attacks that prompted Congress to pass the Church Arson Prevention Act – legislation that raised the sentence for arson at a house of worship to a maximum of 20 years, along with Clinton establishing the National Church Arson Task Force.

Based on the Church Arson Task Force 2000 Report, of the 145 fires at African-American houses of worship investigated from 1995 to 1999, whites made up 63 percent of those arrested. Blacks accounted for 36 percent of arsonists with Hispanic perpetrators numbering just under one percent. Additionally, during its height in 1995-96, arson occurred every five days at a Black church.

Readers may recall that several Black churches succumbed to destruction by fire in 2015 following the murders of nine Blacks by Dylann Roof at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

More recently, the Monday fire that devastated France’s iconic Notre Dame Cathedral drew expressions of sorrow and sympathy from around the world, including from U.S. lawmakers including President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, regarding the edifice which has, for eight centuries, served as one of the most-visited houses of worship in the world.

“It is heartbreaking to see a house of God in flames,” Pence shared in a tweet.

However, their collective silence about the recent fires that destroyed three predominantly-African-American suggests a problematic lack of empathy for people of color who live as members of their own country and the history of the three Black houses of worship.

Each of the churches in Louisiana, while significantly younger than Notre Dame, boast a rich legacy and have long-played a vital role in St. Landry Parish’s Black community – one even hosting a cemetery that contains the graves of Blacks once enslaved in Louisiana.

The Rev. Gerald Toussaint of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, whose church has stood for more than 140 years old, said the following.

“I don’t get it. What could make a person do that to a church?” he said in an interview with a local Louisiana newspaper.

As for Greater Union Baptist Church, also over 100 years old, its pastor and the grandson of one of its founders expressed disbelief.

“He left a legacy for me and I was trying to fulfill that to the best of my ability,” the Rev. Harry Richard said to CBC news reporters.

NAACP President Derrick Johnson says Black churches have long been targeted to frighten African Americans.

“For decades, African-American churches have served as the epicenter of survival and a symbol of hope for many in [our] community,” he said in a statement. “As a consequence, these houses of faith have historically been the targets of violence.”

The church fires have, of course, drawn wide coverage and attention including the Louisiana governor who mentioned it in his recent state of the state. But top Trump administration officials have not spoken out on or condemned the violence.

However, in a tweet from Hillary Clinton, she addressed responses to the Notre Dame fire that have been more numerous than those speaking to attacks on Black churches in the U.S.

“As we hold Paris in our thoughts today, let’s also send some love to our neighbors in Louisiana. Three historically-Black churches have burned in recent weeks, charring buildings and scattering communities,” she said, including ways to contribute to their rebuilding via go fund me accounts.

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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